Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Edmond O'Brien

I watched DOA recently and reaffirmed my opinion that it's one of the great B pulp stories of all time.

"I'd like to report a murder."

Hw can you miss with an opening like that? This is pure noir from first frame to last, an almost surreal experience of radioactive drugs (the scene with the doctor telling him that he's going to die is handled flawlessly), the almost documentary-like observation of San Francisco architecture, the quick vicious violence.

There's even a snarky bit of satire. The war has ended and prosperity has come to many. Salesmen abound. They fill the hotel where O'Brien first stays. As he goes into his room he sees there's a party going on in the room across from him. He accepts the invitation. Director Rudolph Mate gets everything right in this bit--the inane chatter, the sexual undertone, the sudden drunken jealousy, the goofy hats of the women and the effusive Chamber of Commerce attitude of the men.

From that point on it's grim without relief. As many critics have noted the black band in the jazz club scene was pushing the envelope. There was studio concern the film wouldn't be shown in the South (though I never quite understood that--the band did nothing but make some sweet music, they weren't hitting on white chicks). And then comes the succession of liars O'Brien encounters as he tries to figure out who poisoned him and why. He becomes a de facto hardboiled private eye and a better peeper than most. There's all that anger, all that fear.

I saw this new at Half Price for (I think) $3. Hard to go wrong.

As for O'Brien...several years ago TCM showed him as a very young man in a costume drama. He was thin and theatrcal. Studied. Weight and years gave him a more comfortable persona, the perpetually agigated average man who lost just about every battle with the dark gods. Though he would do more work after his part in The Wild Bunch, I think he was especially memorable as the crazed-wise old coot with rotted teeth and a wino laugh. Fitting and ironic in context that his character and Robert Ryan's were the only two left in the coda. Fine work capping a significant career.


Mike Doran said...

I'm a bit hazy on the details, but I recall reading that Edmond O'Brien's career was curtailed by late-in-life problems with his hearing and eyesight, followed later by Alzheimer's.

Others may be able to provide more details.

Peter L. Winkler said...

In his autobiography, director Don Siegel recalls how O'Brien was practically stumbling over things on the set. O'Brien privately told Siegel that he had, I seem to recall from the book, cataracts. Later on, when he worked in Orson Welles' unreleased THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, O'Brien showed some signs of mental deterioration, which is recalled in a very good documentary available on DVD, WORKING WITH ORSON WELLES.

Mike Dennis said...

If I'm not mistaken, was he not Oscar-nominated for his role in THE WILD BUNCH?

He also had a radio career, for a while playing the lead in YOURS TRULY, JOHNNY DOLLAR. His voice was pitch perfect for radio.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Terrific post Ed - I've always had a particular affection for the 1988 remake just because I though it made more out of the great narrative conceit - but after reading your post I am definitely going to clear a good 90 minutes or so and watch the 1950 version again - thanks very much for that. Of his later work I love O'Brien in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and he's terrific as the senator in SEVEN DAYS IN MAY too.